How to Build a Narrative Argument

Support now exists for writers looking to strengthen their story's thematic argument.

Codifying the thematic argument of a story is no longer a guessing process reserved for the few. Methods and understandings exist today that propel a neophyte Author’s appreciation of narrative structure into the stratosphere. The question is: Will you jump aboard or be left behind on the dying and increasingly hostile planet of blind ignorance?

Theme is not a mystery.

You know what your story is about; you know why you’re driven to write day in and day out. Putting it into words for others to understand or finding the right scenes to support that purpose is another thing. Why isn’t there a simple way of marking down your heart’s intent and discovering a structure that helps communicate it to the world?

It turns out, there is something--and it’s been around for over twenty years. We merely needed clarification as to its purpose.

An approach out of the darkness

A recent email highlighted this step forward:

I notice that with the Narrative First App you’ve incorporated this notion of "Narrative Argument", which on the surface appears to be a central narrative drive for the story. I haven’t seen this in Dramatica, so is it a new innovation of your own? It looks like you’re taking some combination of MC resolve, MC growth, story judgment and story outcome to generate it.

It indeed is my own "innovation."😁

After several years of story consulting and mentoring writers in the practical application of the Dramatica® theory of story, I realized that everyone tends to miss the big picture when it comes to the storyform. Caught up in the intricacies of encoding Prerequisites, Crucial Elements, Catalysts & Inhibitors, writers forfeit their message for the minutiae. The Narrative Argument feature found in the Subtxt sums up the storyform with a thematic statement familiar to most writers.

For Lady Bird, the argument is Stop rejecting everything around you, and you can learn to appreciate where you came from. It’s only once Christine moves away from Rejection (her Problem element as the Main Character) and into Acceptance of her real name (her Solution element) that she finally Learns (Story Goal) how to find peace (Story Judgment of `Good).

The Narrative Argument for Lady Bird

The Narrative Argument of a story is integral to the integrity of a narrative. The seventy-five Storypoints that coalesce to form this thematic message seem overwhelming and intimidating--but, they don’t have to be that way. Understanding the single argument these points reference makes their application within a story easier. The Author shifts their focus away from the theoretical and towards their inherent strength as an artist: the imagining of scenes and situations that communicate their heart’s truest intention.

Moving beyond the controlling idea

The kind of complexity inherent in a model of narrative like the Dramatica theory of story tends to lead many writers astray as they try to integrate their current level of understanding:

I keep thinking it should be something like Robert McKee's Controlling Idea where one theme (Issue) is set against the other; like Denial and Closure.

Close, but not quite right. The argument is more than one Throughline: the entire storyform is the narrative argument. Main Character, Obstacle Character, their Relationship--all of it adds up towards a singular purpose.

McKee’s Controlling Idea is analogous to Lajos Egris’ thematic statement concept. Greed leads to self-destruction is one example of this reductive line of thinking. The Narrative Argument of the storyform goes beyond the simple formula of subject matter equaling outcome and instead, provides specific narrative elements that define the Author's message.

The formula for an argument

The Narrative Argument is a combination of six critical Storypoints found within a Dramatica storyform:

For the current catalog of 380+ storyforms, the service builds these arguments programmatically. As administrator, I provide the gists--or example storytelling--for the Main Character’s Crucial Element and the Story Goal. If the narrative calls for a tragedy or some failure in the Objective Story Throughline, the service swaps the Goal for the Story Consequence. If the story features a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve, the service exchanges Focus or Direction for Problem or Solution.

Overcomplicating the message

Some lose sight along the way:

My own thinking is if I were to put the argument together like McKee I would probably have to write a CI for each Throughline and I would use the two Issues as the basis and indicate which one wins or loses based on the Story Outcome and Story Judgment.

This approach pulls the Throughlines apart as if they maintain meaning on their own. They don't.

The Four Throughlines offer perspective on the same inequity and only hold purpose in their reference to one another. Just like the Main Character means nothing without the Obstacle Character, a single Throughline means nothing without the other three.

Finding the key ingredients of an argument

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women presents the argument Start abandoning your inhibitions, and you can change the world. While the real Marston didn’t entirely transform society as a whole, he did manage to improve the lives of those around him and in essence, his world. In the film, this argument plays out with Elizabeth moving away from her own self-imposed restrictions (Main Character Problem of Control]( "Main Character Problem of Control - Narrative First")) and into a more free & uninhibited existence ([*Main Character Solution of* Free). This change of personal worldview (Main Character Resolve of Changed]( "Main Character Resolve of Changed - Narrative First")) not only brought Elizabeth personal relief ([*Story Judgment of* Good) but also made it possible for Marston to transform his family (Story Goal of Becoming]( "Story Goal of Becoming - Narrative First") and [*Story Outcome of* Success).

The Narrative Argument for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

In the end, Dramatica is about defining the key ingredients towards making a story resonate with clarity and definition. Sure, you could write a story about how Greed leads to self-destruction--but what are the specific narrative elements of that reality? Is it a matter of moving away from Avoiding things like Simba in The Lion King or David Grant in Nebraska? Suddenly we’re talking about personal greed and its effect on family and loved ones, rather than a simple blanket statement of evil leads to more bad.

Or, maybe you want to focus on the way out of greed. Perhaps you write about the benefits of moving towards Avoiding things like Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) in L.A. Confidential or Eliot in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Elliot greedy? Wasn’t his hiding of E.T. greedy and potentially self-destructive behavior?

The Lion King and Nebraska witness the narrative element of Avoidance as a Problem. L.A. Confidential and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial see Avoidance as a Solution. The nuances available to a writer who understands the Narrative Argument of their story energize their work with confidence and sophistication unheard of in generations past.

The connective tissue that is Dramatica

The Dramatica theory of story, without a doubt, offers us the most significant appreciation of narrative available. Without explanation and exploration it invites detours into wrong avenues of thought:

is my notion of a "narrative essence" really just a way of describing the problem element? Or am I obliquely describing the inequity itself? Maybe this connective tissue is in fact what Dramatica provides by forcing various choices once you’ve selected certain options and it’s just that, for me as a writer, I need it to come out as an explicit textual statement?

This idea is precisely what the Dramatica theory of story provides, and what the Subtxt seeks to make more visible. By encouraging the writer to codify and define precisely what it is they are trying to say with their story, the storyform frames their intent with purpose and direction.

The "connective tissue" of the Narrative Argument connects artist to theory. I recognized the ability of Dramatica to assess the "narrative essence" of a story almost two decades ago and began this process of Narrative First in response to that realization. The Narrative Argument found within the Atomizer is the next step towards making great & effective storytelling available to everyone.

Originally published 02-27-2018

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